In a blog post today, Anne Kennedy tackles a popular idea in evangelical thought: that God speaks to us outside of his Word—so much so that we say, “God told me to do this,” or “I feel that God is leading me to do that” without reference to what God tells us through scripture. She admits she’s tempted to use this language, and she has used this language in the past, but she’s giving it up.
It’s a principled, theological choice, and it’s been very hard to carry forward. First of all, it has forced me to see where I haven’t really believed scripture to be sufficient. Has God spoken? Why, yes he has. In the scriptures. They were written a long time ago, but God uses them to work on the insides of each Christian in an intimate, personal way. I read the bible all the time, and God uses those words to cut open my heart of stone. Often, it feels like he’s leaping out of the page in bodily form. But he isn’t speaking audibly to me. He isn’t using impressions and feelings. He is speaking to me, through the scriptures. I don’t really always enjoy that process. It is often painful and difficult. I would like something extra and something more than the bible. But the bible itself says it is enough. The scriptures are sufficient to make me complete for every good work.
Second, it has forced me to exercise my mind and will in the making of decisions. I pray differently now than I did before. When I could say, ‘God called me’ or ‘God led me’, the onus was on God not to screw up. And when I did something foolish, I was quick to blame him for my error. Conflating my sinful desires with the leading of God himself was the easy comfortable way. But also, dare I say it, the ugly way. God, of course leads and guides me, but it’s not me sitting around waiting for the word. I don’t get a special Holy Spirit download of words and impressions. I have to read the bible, pray, look at my actual circumstances, act, beg God to stop me if I’m doing the wrong thing, and keep inching forward in what feels like the darkness. But all the time, the more mature I become as a Christian, God is building wisdom in my inner parts, opening and closing the vistas that surround me, providentially moving me in the direction he wants me to go. I don’t need that special word. The scripture is sufficient especially with the Holy Spirit wielding it deftly at the mind and heart.
She is making the exact same point that theologian Phillip Cary makes in his book Good News for Anxious Christians. In fact, Cary complains that this waiting around for God to tell us, for example, whom to marry, or what school to go to, or what job to take, or what kind of $65 million private jet to purchase, is a recent development in the history of evangelical thought. According to Cary, it never occurred to previous generations of Protestants to think that God gave such explicit instructions. Instead, they believed, God’s guidance came through the Bible as mediated by the Holy Spirit and our own God-given wisdom.
In the church I grew up in (a Southern Baptist one in suburban Atlanta), we would be rightly suspicious of people who said, “God told me…,” yet even we talked in youth group of being “in” or “out of” God’s will. (Have you heard that before?) That God has one (ideal) plan for each person’s life, and it’s up to each person to discover what it is. You’d better not get it wrong, either. Because being “out of” God’s will—sometimes called “missing” God’s will—could mean a lifetime of misery—unless or until you decided to get back on the path of God’s will.
One problem with using language of “God told me,” being “in” or “out of” God’s will, or “missing God’s will” is that it underestimates God’s sovereignty and providence. God isn’t “in control” inasmuch as we submit our lives to his will; he’s in control regardless. God’s plan for our lives isn’t sidetracked by our failure to do one thing or another. Why? Because, with his foreknowledge, he’s already accounted for our actions—good and bad, faithful and unfaithful—and worked all of them into his plan for us.
Another problem with this language is that it underestimates God’s grace. Yes, we may feel more confident and courageous knowing that a particular course of action has been sanctioned by a specific “word” from the Lord. But even apart from such a word, we can be confident that God will redeem our actions and use them for good.
Having said all that, while Kennedy’s (and Cary’s) words serve as a helpful warning, I don’t buy in to their argument completely. For one thing, I’ve had those strong intuitions that God is “speaking” to me. Maybe that’s an understatement: I’ve felt as if God has zapped me with lightning sometimes. Maybe that’s not God’s “voice,” but it’s something! So perhaps the language we use to describe these intuitions is imprecise or inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit isn’t guiding us in some way through them.
Besides, God foreknew that we would have these strong intuitions, including how we would interpret and respond to them. Therefore, it’s no stretch to imagine that he uses them—as he does everything else—for our good. If we’re wrong, he’ll redeem this mistake too.